Jun 042013

Lobbying is getting a terrible – perhaps I should say an even worse – name for itself.  The latest here from the Guardian; meanwhile, background here from the BBC.

I suppose, as the latter article underlines, lobbying in theory is a conduit for democratic debate:

Lobbying in order to influence political decisions is widely regarded as a legitimate part of the democratic process. Lobbyists are firms or individuals that are paid to influence such decisions.

They are often former politicians or ex-civil servants who have developed personal contacts with those in power.

Alternatively, individuals. firms, charities and other groups can lobby on their own, without paying professional lobbyists.

The problem, of course, is the rank professionalisation of the activity.  That people and firms can earn livings on the back of all this is clearly a vector for the infection of our body politic.

So why does it need to happen in the first place?  I suppose, in the first instance, it has something to do with the trafficking of information.  From the hundreds of thousands of press releases which attempt to churnalise good journalists into moral submission to the ready-made pre-digested outputs of the higher-powered lobbyists, we basically have an information industry giving up self-interested executive overviews to MPs and others who often have very little time on their hands.

Do we really believe all MPs and Lords religiously read every word of every parliamentary proposal?  Or, indeed, are able in relatively short timeframes to accurately judge the implications of every clause?  In such a circumstance, it surely ought to be both beneficial and inevitable that outside specialists interact with and inform our representatives in both Houses.

Surely it should.  Surely it must:

  • 206 parliamentarians have recent or present financial private healthcare connections
  • 145 Lords have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
  • 124 Peers benefit from the financial services sector
  • 1 in 4 Conservative Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 6 Labour Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 6 Crossbench Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 10 Liberal Democrat Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies involved in healthcare
  • 71 MPs have recent or present financial links to companies involved in private healthcare
  • 81% of these are Conservative

And so it goes on.

So how can we resolve the corrupting nature of money in our democratic process?  I think it would be relatively simple.  As follows: how about we throw even more money at our MPs and Lords?  “More money?” I hear you screech.  “Well, yes,” I reply hurriedly.  Let me explain.

Just as churnalism is the bane of modern mainstream media, as overworked communicators rely more and more on the PR industry for the sources of their stories and points of view on reality, so the spin and angles professionalised lobbyists place on our perceptions of the world don’t half taint these perceptions to a considerable degree.  Yet if each and every MP and Lord had their own properly resourced research machine, resourced to the extent any half-decent lobbying firm is currently resourced for example, and which allowed them to investigate from scratch the whole world and its mother, wouldn’t the impact on and need for our representatives to engage with such democratically debilitating creatures fall dramatically?

If every one of our representatives was in essence the centre of a mini think-tank all on its lonesome, wouldn’t the information flow and the unhappy dependence on external mediation become far less necessary?  In such a way, then, we could recover some of the alleged former glories of our constituency system where individuals used to vote with their own properly informed – and relatively independent – minds on matters their own understandings served to broaden.

Once this was so; the world, quite naturally, has since become far more complicated.  Hardly surprising many cannot keep up, and therefore feel the need for the supporting hand of intellectual bribery.  (Sometimes literal bribery too.)

But if MPs and Lords could revert to being those disinterested specialists of other times whose careers were designed to consistently enable representative democracy, instead of the helicopter-viewing extensions of PR merchants they’ve latterly and frequently turned into, we could perhaps begin to reconstruct a recognition that not all in our democracy has to stink so unlimitedly.

What I am finally suggesting?  I suppose nothing more nor less than this: that our MPs and other representatives became not just private but, more significantly, very public investigators.

Not easily swayed recipients of pre-digested wisdoms but – actually – generators of original and very evidence-based thought.

A Magnum anyone?

No.  Not those summer thoughts of lazy indulgence.  This one I mean, of course!  (In a way …)


Apr 202012

Kevin suggests that what the lobbying scandals need are an improved political class.  He writes interestingly when he says:

The correct place to start is to recognise that most MPs – in all parties – are pretty straight. Let’s encourage them to know their own minds a bit more. And let’s provide them with proper independent policy support to help them formulate their own positions on the key issues.

One observation before we continue: whilst I agree that most MPs are likely to be straight, I am inclined also to believe that the higher up the greasy pole they get, the less straight they become.  This is a serious issue, of course, because the higher up they are, the more disproportionate their influences.

Anyhow.  Kevin continues to write interestingly when he concludes the following (the bold is mine):

The conspiracy theorists and gesture politics mob who want to choke-off lobbying will simply fail to do so if ministers come forward with weak measures, or we will see our democracy asphyxiated if they come forward with clumsy, catch-all ones.

But let’s use this moment to change politics as much as lobbying. Unless we beef-up our MPs’ ability to shape the policy agenda, rather be shaped by lobbyists of whatever hue, we will have missed a trick.

And the bottom feeders of the lobbying world will get away scot-free when this latest, predictable and toothless attempt to clean-up the industry fails to do just that.

I said much the same thing when I suggested the following recently, with respect to the related subject of party political funding and PR.  Which is precisely why I argued in favour of a system whereby customers of companies could decide whether to make a purchase on the basis of a traffic-light labelling system which explained how much an organisation was spending on funding and PR per political party.  In fact, I expanded on the theme in another post the other day on the subject of a US site called sopatrack.com.  Here, tools which scrape publicly available data help determine which US congressmen and women vote “with the money” – money the wider constituents of the American Congress may raise for their own, often grubby, purposes.

The virtues of the above two ideas?  Both of them give back to the voters the knowledge that translates into power – without requiring the current political class to change, a priori, its behaviours.  The only legislation we would actually need would be freedom of information powers to access the necessary datasets where access did not currently exist.  Not a small order, I do have to accept – but far easier an order to define and delimit than the diffuse desire to do something about political corruption.

So whilst Kevin is right – we do need a political class with more backbone (which, as he rightly points out, does imply independent means to study  matters of modern import accurately and objectively) – the constituency he misses out of the equation, the voters themselves, also needs a greater capacity to oversee what’s going on.

And the tools I mention above, providing not a political straitjacket but rather constructive carrots and sticks, could achieve just that.

Apr 152012

Party political donations have been a running sore on body politics the world over.  Your opinion all depends of course on where you sit on the political spectrum.  If you’re on the right, you’ll clearly assume and argue that everyone has the right to contribute in terms of that circle of individual freedoms they so delight in under such circumstances.

Except, that is, when it comes to political and economic opinions and the oft-held desires by progressives to change the existing order of things.

Meanwhile, if you’re on the left you’ll be inclined to assert the right of organised labour to support a political wing of action such as the British Labour Party represents.

Thus we get these extraordinarily bitter arguments for and against trades union-funded political parties.

One group, however, for some strange reason, is generally left out of the above equation.  A Facebook friend of mine reminded me of this collective in a couple of Facebook posts of his yesterday, when referring to the amounts of PR and lobbying money, as well as out-and-out party funding, which private-sector companies seem to find from the profits they make out of their customers (ie you and me).  And whilst the companies in question – in the story linked to these are American banks, already recovering from the shame of their recent bailouts as they revert to their old bumptious selves – will argue all such monies have the approval of their shareholders, I do wonder if it wouldn’t be reasonable to explicitly consult customers as well – in much the same way, that is, as trades union hierarchies are required to consult their members.

And at the very very least, provide a percentage of how much money was being spent on the different political parties.

The latter would work in the following quite simple sort of way: every time you received an invoice or receipt, at the bottom or on the back there would figure how much of that sale went to political lobbying, PR and party funding – as well as to which parties the contributions in question were being made.  In such a way, the consumer would via a traffic light system akin to current food labelling be able to determine whether he or she wanted to purchase a product or not.

The party funding systems as they currently existed could continue to exist – but it would be the relatively free market of informed customers which would decide in the end whether to punish a company for either contributing to a party they really didn’t like or, alternatively, contributing far too much of their income – and consequently the prices they charged to such end-users and customers – to means and ends which had very little to do with their core activities.

A way of controlling the American super PACs and any equivalent organisations and networks in the UK?

It’s a thought, anyhow.

Mar 262012

I am minded to have this thought – it’s obvious when you think about it.  We are, in fact, in Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” territory.

If all the bad things we wish to stop are secret, how can we possibly get the information to stop them from happening?  If the lobbying that really damages our political and societal life is the stuff very few people ever get to hear of, who on earth is going to be able to do anything about it?  In a sense, in fact, the recent quarter-of-a-million-pound “Premier League” revelations are almost certainly the least of it.  Especially as one Tory politician apparently argued this evening that £50,000 was a quantity of very little consequence.

In the grand scheme of things, that underbelly none of us ordinary people ever get to see, it probably is indeed a quantity of very little consequence.

The truth of the matter is that whilst the Tories have been caught red-handed on this occasion, a million other occasions in all political parties and business transactions will not only have been missed over the decades but will also continue to be missed in the future.

For understandable political reasons, Labour needs to take advantage of these circumstances – and the tribal man in me can accept this.  But the grassroots idealist side of my political make-up sees nothing to enjoy in Cameron’s predicament:

  1. firstly, because if Labour generates the political capital I think it might be able to, it will encourage its leaders to enable a process whereby the hierarchical and pyramidal politics of the Tories are simply and smoothly replaced by what’ll amount to a Tony Blair II – the progressive grassroots will then once again be swept up in a wave of emotional attachment and the same old cycle of unsustainable politics will repeat itself once more;
  2. secondly, the rules and regulations that honest and well-meaning organisations such as 38 Degrees want us to sign up to will not deal with the “unknown unknowns” which I mentioned at the top of this post – and which really do the serious damage to our ship of state’s waterline;

Either secret lobbying is really secret, in which case there is nothing to be done; or it is actually known, in which case what must be happening is that a culture of self-interest amongst politicians, businesspeople, journalists and others in the know is insider-trading on information it prefers to maintain as quite privileged.

That is the real issue: that culture of insider trading; those estates which should review their respective behaviours but are now simply feeding parasitically off each other – using each other’s knowhow and intelligence to enrich their pockets rather than a wider intellect.

That is what we need to sweep away – the creeping commercialisation and financialisation of more and more public and private transactions on the planet.

Money, then, at the root of this particular challenge?

Who’d have known it?

And there’s me wondering where I’ve heard that one before …

Mar 262012

I’ve just received an email from 38 Degrees called “Dinner with David Cameron”.  For a bizarre moment, I thought it was an invite to yours truly, an old almost-Witney boy himself, to cuddle up to the flavour of the political month.

It wasn’t though.

The email itself, amongst other things, pointed out the following:

Dear Miljenko,

Yesterday, we got yet another glimpse of how corrupt our political system is. The co-treasurer of the Conservatives was filmed giving a rare honest account of how lobbying can work. Donate enough money and you get to have dinner with the Prime Minister.[1]

That’s probably not most people’s idea of a great night out, but the Tory treasurer was in no doubt it would pay off. “It’ll be awesome for your business”, he said.

A ban on secret lobbying would help weed out this kind of sleaze. New rules could force politicians to reveal who they’re meeting and what they talked about. That’s why 38 Degrees members have been campaigning to bring in these rules for ages.

After the MP expenses scandal, public pressure pushed all the parties to make big promises about tackling lobbying. But now it’s time to write the new rules, Cameron has come up with weak rules that won’t solve the problem.[2]

If we speak up together now, we can push him to go much further and bring in a real ban, not just a token gesture. Can you take 30 seconds to sign a petition demanding a ban on secret lobbying?

I think they’ve all got it wrong, though.  In fact, I think the Tories got it wrong when Francis Maude was made a sacrificial lamb to their cause.  They should have called on Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Workfare and Old-Aged Misery – I’m sure it would have been easier for him to argue the whole wretched affair was a wizard wheeze to give practical experience in entrepreneurship to those who might need it.

The truth of the matter – and here, I’m going to be absolutely even-handed – is that entrepreneurship and politics really should not be mixed.  As I pointed out recently, in Roosevelt’s opinion doing precisely this was tantamount to the creation of a fascist state.  An accusation which, in the context of 20th century history, we should not be inclined to make lightly.

In reality, the problem is neither party funding nor corrupt politicians.  The problem is that our politicians and our businesspeople are now indistinguishable the one from the other.  Anyone who is placed in the condition of judge and jury both – of prosecution and defence, one might say – is bound to find it difficult to understand the markers in the sand.

Which is why I am inclined to appeal to anyone who cares to listen:

  • if you’re a politician, please consider your bounden and lifetime duty to be limited to enabling the correct functioning of our body politic;
  • and if you’re a businessperson, please consider your bounden and lifetime duty to be limited to enabling the correct functioning of our competitive marketplace and your place in it;

This should not be a question of passing discrete rules which those in power who have the power will inevitably sideslip.  No.  We need much much more than another set of spurious regulations: we need for people, for real individuals and their colleagues, to want to create and fashion an entirely brand new culture of behaviours.

It’s our culture that has collapsed around us – not our legislative instincts.  You cannot simply force the kind of casual corruption which is contaminating our politicking and business out of existence: once implanted, it’s generally a cancer which escapes all clean excision.

Rather, we need a twofold process of education coupled with that aforementioned hygiene: only then can we revert to a set of relationships which, long-term, might serve to benefit not only democratic discourse but also the sustainability of business behaviours.  What might be good for our democracy might, after all, conceivably be good for our economy.

In a 21st century environment where collaboration is becoming just as important as competition, our instincts should lead us just as much to a re-education of society’s members as a very 19th century dispatching of summary excommunication.

I’m not looking for a witch hunt here but, instead, a process whereby understanding is reached around how we might generate a broader society of constructive instincts; an environment or ecosystem of adult relationships.

Is this too much to ask of this interface between politics and business?

I sincerely hope it might not be.

Jan 182012

Jenny, our friendly neighbourhood loan shark, paid us a visit today.  We weren’t in, so she left us a friendly note – with a mobile telephone number too.  This is page one and page two of the note.

As you can see, the APR on a loan of between £50 and £500 is 433.4 percent.

Nice, eh?

And when George Osborne talks about getting us all – as a nation – out of the indebted situation we supposedly find ourselves in, I am sure none of the 10 o’clock news audiences thinks he means stuff such as this.

But stuff such as this is the downside of governments which think a crash-landing of pig-headed decisiveness is far better than a soft-landing of thoughtful patience.

Oh, and Jenny’s mobile phone number?  I discreetly airbrushed it out.  I wondered – in these SOPA-ridden days – whether publishing online a telephone number introduced so slyly into a housing-trust property was really rather quite the done thing.  For it would seem, these days, in the second decade of this century, that whilst private industry has the right to do anything its lobbyists make nominally legal, private individuals can only shut up, grovel and – in the event – pay through the nose.

Dec 062011

Today we get this response to the current lobbying scandal from David Cameron’s office:

It simply isn’t true to say that Bell Pottinger or any other lobbying company has influenced government policy. If companies have issues then they can come and talk to the government. We have a department for Business and speak to people all the time people in the Treasury speak to businesses and businesses speak to people in Downing Street all the time… It is simply untrue to say that BP or any other lobbying company influences government. I am challenging this idea that this company or any other lobbying company have influenced policy.

The Guardian then goes on to fact check this claim with clearly contradicting results.

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron himself was quoted as having said the following on the subject in February 2010 (before the last General Election, that is) (original here and further background here):

Today it is a £2 billion industry that has a huge presence in Parliament. The Hansard Society has estimated that some MPs are approached over one hundred times a week by lobbyists. Much of the time this happens covertly.

We don’t know who is meeting whom. We don’t know whether any favours are being exchanged. We don’t know which outside interests are wielding unhealthy influence. This isn’t a minor issue with minor consequences. Commercial interests – not to mention government contracts – worth hundreds of billions of pounds are potentially at stake.

I believe that secret corporate lobbying, like the expenses scandal, goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.

We can’t go on like this. I believe it’s time we shone the light of transparency on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.

Politics should belong to people, not big business or big unions, and we need to sort this out. So if we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge – gained while being paid by the public to serve the public – for their own private gain.

A speech in which he also pointed out that:

I’m talking about lobbying – and we all know how it works.

Well, obviously …

The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisors for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism. We believe in market economics, not crony capitalism. So we must be the party that sorts all this out.

But what can only be described as Mr Cameron’s two-faced approach to the subject is underlined by this story from London’s Evening Standard, published in June 2010:

David Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne and their adviser Rohan Silva deserve some credit. They were among the first to recognise the potential of behavioural economics to transform marketing and communications — as made fashionable in the 2008 book Nudge, written by US academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

Now everyone in advertising and marketing is talking about behavioural economics — not least because Cameron and Osborne control the Government’s communications arm, the Central Office of Information (COI), which was Britain’s biggest advertiser last year. In a significant move, Thaler has also become a Government adviser.

So let me get this straight, if I can.  Today, according to Cameron anyway, lobbyists spend £2 billion a year on not influencing government – whilst in 2010, according to the same man of wisdom, they were an awful cancer on the body politic which only the Tories could possibly excise.

I suppose today as well, the excellent advertising man that he is, he’ll be telling us that behavioural economics is now as bust as any average European country.  And that the Central Office of Information’s annual budget is a total waste of time and should be entirely eliminated.

Oh.  Ah.  It has been.

How many fronts is this bunch going to open up before we all come to our senses?

Do they ever care to leave a bridge unburned?

And shouldn’t the rest of us now be trying to find a way back?

Update to this post: I do wonder if – beneath all these twists and turns and apparent changes of opinion – there aren’t some really rather unpleasant prejudices.  Like, for example, that the plebs of the world such as you and me are easily nudged and confused and influenced through the darkest arts of marketing and publicity by grand communicators such as Cameron and Osborne.

And may the Lord forbid us the thought that the latter could become just as prone to the evil temptations of tawdry self-interest as the aforementioned proletariat have clearly shown themselves to be.

Dec 062011

The other day I suggested we revolutionise Big Pharma by permitting its access to confidential NHS patient records in exchange for it agreeing to open source any resulting research.  Today, we have this self-evident scandal where it would appear lobbyists are bending the ears of those at the very top of government.  As I point out, also today, this is hardly surprising with 20-odd millionaires currently making up the British Cabinet – but, hey ho!, I’m not in the business of perpetuating political walls and prejudices.  So if such lobbying is here to stay, how can we make it an honourable process? 

After all, making representations is surely the essence of democracy.  And lobbying must have started out – at some point in time or another – as a logical tool of democratic discourse.

Perhaps, in a way, we could “open source” the lobbyists – and, by extension, wider government itself.  For such would appear to be the ability of our security services to listen in on our conversations these days that I do wonder if it mightn’t be most democratic of our state to use the capability of our spooks to ensure clean and honourable governance at the very highest levels.

If all lobbying activities were thus opened to public scrutiny – that is to say, all conversations and electronic exchanges between lobbyists and government representatives were automatically made available for any institution or member of the public to trawl – surely this would improve the levels of democratic discourse.  It does, of course, remind me of what I believe the essential goal of WikiLeaks once was: to ensure that people behave behind closed doors as they might do in front of the public gaze.  The basic flaw in WikiLeaks argument was, of course, that before you invoke such a sea change in state governance and behaviours, you should really give people sufficient notice of the rewriting of the ground rules.  Notice which WikiLeaks clearly neglected to offer – or, even, more sadly, contemplate.

Nevertheless, once tried and discarded, we could approach the matter more sensitively.  We could do far worse, in fact, than to ask those nice gentlemen and ladies at GCHQ not only to protect our democracy from international and home-grown law-breakers – but also from the kind of rank behind-closed-doors advantage-taking which those at the top of the tree would appear, from the latest reports, to be engaging in.

A democracy where Big Brother watches the makers and shakers as well as the miscreants – and ensures a healthy debate and democracy by removing, in equal measure, all hiding places from everyone.

Why not?

They do, after all, claim all global conversations are now being scanned.  If the capability exists in counter-terrorism, why not in the field of democratic process?

Oct 162011

I’ve had a few already this weekend.  (Treasonable thoughts I mean.)  And I’m beginning to wonder if the crime of treason hasn’t been outgunned by modern business practice.  After all, in the olden days, what was Caesar’s belonged to Caesar, and what was God’s belonged to God.  No confusion there.  And anyone who transgressed would surely end up on the wrong end of a crucifixion.  But these days, the most relevant nexuses of power seem to revolve around corporations, their deniable outriders the ideologically-based think tanks (more here), their ever-present lords and masters the shareholders – and any politician who dares to let him- or herself get mixed up in the resulting stew of conflicted interests.  In this case, the nation states seem more like God every minute of every day: last in the line and forever begging for adhesion – whilst those Caesar-like corporate interests ensure themselves first bite at the sinful apple of previous lore.

Under such circumstances, and under such widespread acceptance of the model in question, it would seem that as a practising politician who supposedly operates on behalf of a nation state, it is possible to work in favour of the interests of another state by simply associating oneself with such supposedly charitable-like lobbying organisations.  No one looks in askance.  No one actually ever finds it in themselves to accuse you of working for a foreign power – even though you are.  These are revolving doors which everyone, on both right and left of the political spectrum, expects to have access to.  There is no interest at all, then, from the governing elites to prevent this kind of disloyal behaviour – nor bring it to anyone’s attention as being thus.  It is sanctioned and accepted – until one day, that is, someone goes just a little too far and brings to the cauldron matters like Mossad, toppling Iran and being debriefed by MI6.  After which it becomes just a little bit too murky – or perhaps, instead, that is laughable – for anyone to want to be even mildly associated with such shenanigans.

In plain language and to summarise: it would appear that important and influential politicians at the heart of British government have been working with a “charity” which has the support of American corporate interests: interests which in the United States have set up a massive deniable outrider called the Tea Party in order to coerce the American people into accepting a series of political frameworks no one in their right mind would ever choose to sanction.

As far as the British body politic is concerned, the purpose of the aforementioned “charity” clearly seems to have been to drive a political fifth column into the centre of Conservative thought.  And if David Cameron really does want to deal with lobbyists, as is claimed to be the case, he needs to do so from this particular perspective: Britain may continue to have global friends all over the place; may continue to need them; may, even, be wise to continue to make them … but friends who aim to turn your cosy home with Welfare State included into a shopping mall of distant and jungle law, a law which – what’s more – they not only write but also administer … well, really they do not deserve the designation of friend – nor merit the reciprocal act of a friendship exchanged.

William Hague might very well distance himself thus:

Hague said he had only been a “name on the letterhead” for the Atlantic Bridge thinktank set up by Fox. “It doesn’t mean that you know how the thing is being run in detail,” he said.

Another deniable outrider then?  Another act of betrayal in the name of international relations?  Or another piece of incompetence from the incompetent?

To be honest (and I apologise right now for the bad language I have been driven to use in this post), I think it’s all bollocks myself.  They all know what it’s about – on both sides of the fence.  They’re politicians, for goodness sake.  And politicians live on the cusp of fresh gossip.

Not just bollocks then.  Eighteen carat bollocks, in fact.


The real question, of course, is why no one in the mainstream cared to unearth it all sooner.  And why now they’ve suddenly decided it’s a story worth running.

Weird stuff from the very top of the pyramid, this.  Weird stuff, indeed.